Category Archives: Technology and Society

Cryonics Breakthrough?

I just saw a segment on Fox News (Shepherd Smith’s evening show) that said that Greg Fahy is going to announce the ability to restore animal kidneys to full function after freezing them to deep subzero temperatures. I visted Greg in his lab over a decade ago when he was doing organ preservation research for the Red Cross in Rockville, Maryland, and he was doing some breakthrough work with rabbit kidneys then. According to the report, tests with human organs may commence within two years.

The purpose of the research is to make it possible to preserve organs for transplant for longer periods of time, but the implications for making cryonics ever more viable are obvious. Of course, they had to have the usual “scientist” on as a nay sayer. However, they’re having to cling to straws more as time goes on. They used to talk about making cows out of hamburger. Now they’re reduced to saying, “Well, OK, they can do it with a mouse, but that’s a long way from doing it with a human.”

That’s how science progresses, professor.

Oh, and kudos to Fox for using the correct term “cryonics,” rather than cryogenics.


The authorities in Lansing just figured out, after only a little over a quarter of a century, that there’s a cryonics facility in Clinton Township, Michigan.

Now, of course, they’ve decided that they have to regulate it, but they don’t know how. They think that it’s a combination mortuary and cemetery (which, for some unexplained reason, can’t both legally be done in the same place). Of course, it’s neither, but they can’t suspend any new patients until it gets sorted out.

[via Howard Lovy]

Desktop Manufacturing

…is getting closer.

Flexonics is still in its infancy, but the technology?s potential raises questions about what it will mean to be a consumer in an era of de-vices-on-demand. You?d no longer pay for a product, Canny says, you?d pay for plans. I look forward then to a generation of do-it-yourself industrial designers, tinkerers who tweak commercial product designs to improve and customize them. How will I access the fruits of their labor? Peer-to-peer plan networks, of course, where designs for blenders and mobile phones and TV remote controls are swapped like so many MP3s.

There was a lively couple of threads here on the ethical implications of this a few weeks ago.

The Flight Director’s Nightmare

Ever since the Shuttle first started flying, and perhaps even before, I’ve often thought about a nightmare scenario. I’ve even thought about writing a SF short story, or even full-length novel about it, except that I can’t (intentionally) write fiction (though some would say that I do it often in my attempts to write non-fiction).

A Shuttle launches. Once they attain orbit, it is discovered that they have damage to the tiles that will not allow them to safely enter. In the real world as it existed in the early nineteen eighties, this would be a soul-torturing dilemma, and one that would likely be ultimately passed up to the President. Here’s the problem. The Shuttle doesn’t have enough consumables to last long enough to launch another one to rescue them. The Soviets might be persuaded to launch a couple Soyuz’s, but it’s not clear if they can do it in time, either, and there’s no way to dock them (though early on, they had the “rescue ball concept” for transfer).

But assume as a given that they cannot be rescued (which really did correspond to reality). They only have two choices. They can cross their fingers, pray, or do whatever non-technical things they wish to maximize their chances, and attempt to come home anyway, or they can run out of air on orbit (or choose some faster way to go), and the vehicle becomes a flying tomb, to be either repaired and retrieved later, or reenter in a few weeks. The ethical question, related to this post, is should we destroy the vehicle in a futile attempt to save the crew, or should we sacrifice the crew, who will die either way, and at least attempt to salvage the vehicle? How do the politics play? How does the public react? To make it more interesting, assume that there really is a credible capability to do such a repair and retrieval–that the vehicle really can be saved, and that the crew really cannot.

Now realize that we just averted this scenario in real life only because of the ignorance of Mission Control about the true situation. Is it possible that the tile damage was ignored partly out of (perhaps unconscious) wishful thinking, because the alternative to ignoring it was to face exactly that ethical dilemma and public-relations nightmare? The only difference is that the likelihood of repairing the Orbiter is small. But depending on the level of damage, it might have been larger than the prospects for a safe entry.

One more consideration. If this had been an ISS mission, the crew would likely be alive today, and wondering what to do with a broken orbiter. It’s likely that the damage would have been viewable, and even apparent, when approaching ISS, and the crew would have been able to use the station as a safe haven. But once they launched into an inclination different than that of ISS, if it turns out to be true that the tiles were fatally damaged on ascent, then their fate was sealed, as was their inability to know about it.

All of this, of course, points up the folly of the space policy that we have had in place for the past thirty years, in which we have a single, fragile, unresponsive system to get people to and from space.

History Repeats

I know very little about what happened (even less than many of you, probably), because I just got up and heard the news. I got a phone call this morning from a friend on the east coast.

Like Challenger, this was not a survivable accident. There is no escape system in the Shuttle, for sound engineering reasons.

First my condolences to the friends and family of the crew, and to the nation of Israel, which has suffered so much during the past few years. It has to be a tremendous blow.

I hate to talk about good news/bad news in a situation like this, but let’s just say that it could have been worse.

In the “it could have been worse” category, of all the vehicles to use, Columbia was the least valuable, because it was the oldest in the fleet, and the heaviest. For this reason, it was rarely used for ISS missions, because its payload capability was much less (which is why it was being used for this non-ISS mission).

Also, at least the mission was completed before it happened.

Because it was the oldest bird, if it happened as a result of a simple structural failure (e.g., keel or spar), that would have been the most likely vehicle to which it would occur. On the other hand, that would only explain it if it were a consequence of age. If it’s cycle fatigue, I’d have to go look it up, but I don’t know if Columbia had more flights under its belt than the rest of the fleet.


Here are the possibilities off the top of my head.

Terrorism: possible, but unlikely. If it were, it was a result of sabatoge–not being shot down. It would be difficult for us to take out such a target under those conditions (though the missile defense system under test could probably do it). No one else has such a capability, as far as I know. If it were sabatoge, it could have been something done to the vehicle before it left the ground, either a pressure-sensitive detonation (e.g., something that arms itself when it goes into vacuum, and then goes off when it senses atmospheric pressure again). This seems too sophisticated for Al Qaeda. It could also be simply sawing through the wing spar before the flight, because most of the stress on that member occurs during entry.

Failure of TPS: It could be that it lost some tiles during ascent–sometimes ice falls off the ET during launch, and it could have taken some out in a critical area, perhaps along the leading edge of the wings. Since this flight didn’t go to ISS, no one would have necessarily seen the damage from outside the Shuttle. This would result in burnthrough of a wing, which would quickly propagate through and then tear it off, after which the vehicle would break up from aerodynamic pressure.

I just heard the CNN announcer say that the airframe was “certified” for a hundred missions. Certification is not really the right word. “Designed to meet the requirement of” would be more accurate. Certification would imply that we had sufficient experience with such things to know that it was really capable of that, and we simply don’t.

Next theory, as I already mentioned would be structural failure due to age or cycles. I think that the primary structure is aluminum (though the spar and keel may be titanium–I don’t recall for sure). I wouldn’t think that this is a likely failure, but it’s certainly possible.

The last one I can think of (other than alien attack), would be a loss of the attitude control system (either the flight computers, or an RCS valve stuck open, or an actuator problem on a control surface) which would result in a bad orientation, which again could cause aerodynamic breakup.

OK, one more. Somehow the hypergolics in the OMS/RCS system mixed and caused an explosion.

All of these seem unlikely, but it’s probably one of them.

What does it mean for the program?

Like Challenger, it was not just a crew that “looked like America” (two women, one african american) but it also had the Israeli astronaut on board, which will have some resonance with the war.

Instead of happening just before the State of the Union, it occured three days after. It also occured two days before NASA’s budget plans were to be announced, including a replacement, or at least backup, for the Shuttle.

The fleet will certainly be grounded until they determine what happened, just as occurred in the Challenger situation. Hopefully it won’t be for almost three years. If it is, the ISS is in big trouble, and it means more money off to Russia to keep the station alive with Protons and Soyuz. The current crew can get back in the Soyuz that’s up there now. They will either do that, or stay up longer, and be resupplied by the Russians.

The entire NASA budget is now in a cocked hat, because we don’t know what the implications are until we know what happened. But it could mean an acceleration of the Orbital Space Plane program (I sincerely hope not, because I believe that this is entirely the wrong direction for the nation, and in fact a step backwards). What I hope that it means is an opportunity for some new and innovative ideas–not techically, but programmatically.

Once again, it demonstrates the fragility of our space transportation infrastructure, and the continuing folly of relying on a single means of getting people into space, and doing it so seldom. Until we increase our activity levels by orders of magnitude, we will continue to operate every flight as an experiment, and we will continue to spend hundreds of millions per flight, and we will continue to find it difficult to justify what we’re doing. We need to open up our thinking to radically new ways, both technically and institutionally, of approaching this new frontier.

Anyway, it’s a good opportunity to sit back and take stock of why the hell we have a manned space program, what we’re trying to accomplish, and what’s the best way to accomplish it, something that we haven’t done in forty years. For that reason, while the loss of the crew and their scientific results is indeed a tragedy, some good may ultimately come out of it.

I’m driving back down to LA today, but I’ll have some more thoughts this evening or tomorrow, particularly as more details emerge.

[Quick update before I leave, about 9:25 AM]

Someone in the comments section asks if the vehicle will be replaced. No, that’s not really possible-much of the tooling to build it is gone. It would cost many billions, and take years, and it’s not really needed at the current paltry flight rate. Assuming that they have confidence to fly again after they determine the cause, they’ll continue to operate with the three-vehicle fleet, until we come up with a more rational way of getting people into space, whatever that turns out to be. Unfortunately, because it’s a government program, I fear that the replacement(s) won’t necessarily be more rational…

[One more update at 9:49 AM PST]

Dale Amon has posted on this as well. To correct a couple of statements regarding me, however–I’m arriving in LA tonite–I’m leaving San Bruno this morning, and driving down.

And I never worked on the Shuttle directly. I worked for Rockwell, but in Downey, not Palmdale, and on advanced programs and Shuttle evolution, but not on the main Shuttle program itself.

[OK, one one more before hitting the road, at 10 AM]

Donald Sensing says in the comments:

I have read and respected this blog as long as I’ve been blogging. But today, Rand, I am sorry to say you blew it: “. . . but let’s just say that it could have been worse” and etc.

I just don’t give care about all that. This kind of “analysis” is not relevant at this point. It doesn’t matter. This is a human tragedy in which seven brave men and women violently died.

The social context of these deaths, and the publicly spectacular manner of their deaths, raise the tragedy beyond the personal to a different level. This sad event is a “meta-event,” whose significance is not quantitative (seven dead) but qualitative, striking close to the core of certain aspects of the American national identity. So it does not matter that Columbia was the oldest, or that its mission was completed (and the mission’s cost money wasn’t wasted) and all the rest. At least, it does not matter now, and it may not ever matter, even to NASA. The human scale of the tragedy far outweighs the technical scale.

Donald, thanks for the comments, but with all due respect, I disagree, and that kind of attitude is exactly why the manned space program has been such a disaster for so long. As long as we elevate the humans over the hardware, and emotions over rational discussion, we will never make significant progress in this frontier.

People die on frontiers, (and even in non-frontiers–more died in traffic accidents in the past twenty-four hours than have died in space since we first started going there) and if we can’t accept that, then we have no damned business being there.

I’ll expand on that in a post later this weekend. In fact, it may be the subject of a (perhaps coldhearted, to some) Fox column.

I’m My Own Grandpaw

In addition to cribbing my schtick about Punxatawney Yasser on Thursday (it was probably a case of great minds thinking alike…), normally-sensible James Taranto went off on a rant yesterday–he seems to be a Kassian queasitarian.

On one issue, however, Fukuyama is right and the libertarians are nuts. That issue is reproductive cloning, the manufacture of babies that are genetically identical to an already living human being. Libertarians pooh-pooh objections to reproductive cloning on the grounds that, as blogger Josh Chafetz suggests, a clone is no different from an identical twin.

But this is fatuous. A pair of identical twins are siblings, equally situated toward each other. By contrast, if a man clones himself, he is the “father” to his clone, responsible for his care and upbringing. Libertarians say there’s no need to outlaw reproductive cloning because it’s unlikely very many people will want to practice it. That’s probably true, but those who would are probably those we would least want to. After all, what kind of egomaniac wants to raise a carbon copy of himself?

Well, that might be true. But the fact that some of us don’t think that someone would make a good parent hasn’t, heretofore, resulted in state sanctions against it. Mr. Taranto is entitled to his opinion as to whether people who want to clone are definitionally unfit parents, but I can’t see any basis in law for it.

To understand what’s wrong with reproductive cloning, consider the proscription against incest–a remarkably resilient taboo, having survived the sexual revolution unscathed. Even libertarians, who defend the right of consenting adults to do everything from prostitution to polygamy and snorting coke to freezing dead relatives’ heads, have never, so far as we know, championed a man’s “right” to sleep with his adult daughter.

Well, actually some have…

And what’s his problem with freezing dead relative’s heads? Why is it all right to burn them, or let them rot, but not freeze them? Oh, I know. It makes him “queasy.”

Incest horrifies us because it violates the boundaries that define the most fundamental human relationships, those on which both social cohesion and individual happiness depend. The relationship between parent and child, or brother and sister, is fraught enough without introducing the elements of sexual possessiveness and jealousy that a love affair entails. If children result from an incestuous union, the family tree becomes a horrific tangle, in which parents are also aunts, uncles or grandparents.

No, James.

Incest horrifies us because we’ve been bred to have it horrify us. It’s called an evolutionary adaptation. For the reasons you state, but more importantly, for reasons of the probability of genetic unhappiness resulting from inbreeding, those earlier humans (and their non-human ancestors) who mated with siblings, parents, and children were less successful than those who didn’t. The folks (and pre-folks) with a natural repugnance to incest had a better chance of passing on their genes, so most people (and other animals) alive today have a more-or-less strong version of that genetic trait.

The implication of this is that a natural revulsion developed in more natural times might not necessarily be valid in the modern world, in which we have more control over our genetics, just as religious dietary proscriptions developed by nomadic desert peoples might have little utility in a world of health inspectors and refrigeration.

Feelings are generally just our genes’ way of getting us to do what they want us to. We’ve overcome them in the past (by, for example, teaching that rape is wrong and developing systems of morality in general), and there’s nothing holy about the anti-incest feelings, or anti-cloning feelings, either. We have to evaluate the morality of it in the context of our value system–we cannot just “go with our gut.”

Cloning raises a similar set of problems. Suppose a couple decide to produce a “son” by cloning the husband. Who are the resulting child’s parents? The man and his wife, who are raising the child? Or the man’s parents, whose coupling produced the boy’s genes? Suppose instead of cloning himself, the man clones his father. Suddenly he’s his own grandpa.

Now he’s confusing two separate concepts–genetics and legality.

Many people have legal children who share none of their genes (it’s called adoption). Many people have people who share some or all of their genes for whom they have no legal responsibility whatsoever (e.g., identical twins, or an anonymous sperm donor). Certainly the law is going to have to catch up here, as it did with things like surrogate motherhood, or in-vitro fertilization, but surely he’s joking if he thinks that a man cloning his father, and raising the son, literally makes him a legal grandfather of himself.

Parentage and responsibility to raise children is determined not solely by genetics, but by intent and action. Mr. Taranto needs to untangle these concepts in his mind before he’ll be able to discourse on them usefully.

If that’s not enough to make you queasy, consider this scenario: A 30-year-old couple produce a “daughter” who is a clone of the wife. Two decades pass, the girl grows up, and her middle-aged “father”–with whom she has no genetic kinship–suddenly finds himself face to face with a young woman who is not just hauntingly similar but identical to the woman with whom he fell in love when he was young.

No, not literally identical. Even identical twins aren’t literally identical, in the sense that there are no physical or personality differences between them. Genes aren’t a blueprint–they’re a recipe. The cook (in this case the environment of the womb, and the environment in which the child is brought to maturity) can have a lot of influence over the final product, even if the recipe is followed. Twins are identical because they are produced identically. But it would be surprising (at least to me) if a child bred in a different womb, and raised by different parents in different times, would be the same person as her genetically-identical mother. I don’t know about Mr. Taranto, but I fall in love with people for much more than their physical attributes.

But even it she were literally identical, it is certainly fodder for an entertaining soap opera, but assuming that a woman is foolish enough to engage in such an endeavor with her husband, why should the state prohibit it? I still await an answer other than the state of Mr. Taranto’s stomach.

Reproductive cloning is a monstrous proposition, for reasons that have little to do with the debates over genetic engineering and over the cloning of embryos for medical research. Responsible advocates of scientific progress would do well to be relentless about making this distinction.

I agree that the distinction should be made–there are certainly vastly different ethical issues involved in the two cases. But I simply fail to see it as the intrinsic monstrosity that Mr. Taranto does. Now I suppose that I’ll make him queasy.

But the fact remains that, when the state chooses to interfere with people’s freedom, we need a more compelling reason than “yuck.” I haven’t yet heard one from either Mr. Taranto, or Professor Kass.